How a Music-Business Graduate Became a Guitar Hero: A River Flowing Backward to the Sea

Justin Roth, at 8, decided to refuse a spot in the St. Croix Valley Boy’s Choir; it would interfere with his Saturday cartoons. Justin has since decided to focus more on his music and less on the cartoons. Tom Gadbois fills us in on the results.

Justin R

In a downtown Minneapolis coffeehouse, patrons flow in as the rain picks up outside. Beside the stage, Justin Roth carefully removes his instrument from its case, and places his trademark capos onto the head of the guitar. He steps into the spotlight, cordially addresses the audience, and begins to play.

Although he is categorized as a modern folk musician, the sound Roth makes with his guitar is different from anyone else. To be fair, he does fit the category in one way: the lyrics he sings are sincere. He taught himself how to fingerpick; some of his odder techniques, like using two hands on the fretboard, make you think he’s playing at least a couple of guitars at once. The audience is riveted to the stage: they’ve never heard anything quite like this.

Roth graduated from the University of Minnesota–Duluth in 1997 with a major in Performing Arts Management and a minor in Music. “It was an interdisciplinary degree catered to music,” Roth says. “The teachers in the business school were very helpful in finding art-related projects for me.” Roth has used that knowledge: he books all of his own gigs and sells his own CDs. Aside from learning the ins and outs of the business aspect of the music industry, Roth devoted a lot of time to playing and listening to new music. He originally intended a back-office rather than a center-stage career, but his own passions and talents led him into his current pursuit.

Roth writes all of his own lyrics, which tell stories that are sometimes truly funny. His singer/songwriter credentials are bolstered by instrumental chops that have found favor with many critics.
Roth sings of kites, old men, starry nights, and bonfires. Some songs are more serious, riven by jealousy and broken hearts. The music arises from moments in his own life but the songs are universal. The song “Break the Water” uses old folk tropes to illustrate Roth’s personal philosophy of life: Break the water, break the tide, I’m going as far as the river is wide. Break the water, break the tide, I’m setting my sails to the other side.

Roth, paying his folky dues, performs over one hundred shows a year at coffeehouses, clubs, and colleges from California to New York. He’s opened for David Wilcox, Martin Sexton, and Cheryl Wheeler, and he’s currently working on his sixth CD. His most recent solo production, Shine (2003), contains the song “She Dances” (nominated for 2004 Best Song Award – Just Plain Folks). Roth’s lyrics– There’s no other place I’d rather be, When she dances the way she dances with me.–have the simplicity and universality of an old song but are new to him.

Roth’s live CD, along with fellow singer-songwriter Chris Cunningham, 2 forms of ID, was recorded at Amazing Grace Bakery & Cafe in Duluth, in November 2000 near the end of a 60-city tour. His other albums include Solo Guitar (2000), In Between (2000) and Up Until Now (1997).

Justin loves to perform but is breaking from years of touring to focus on writing new material. “I made a conscious decision to make new music and grow as a writer,” he says. “After a while, your creative growth plateaus if you’re constantly performing.” He needs solitude and peace to write: “My best writing is when I’m by myself. Downtime is important.

“My songs don’t necessarily consist of ‘slice of life’ kinds of lyrics,” he notes. “I like to elaborate on my own experiences. Things get fictionalized and expounded. That’s one thing I enjoy about writing — you have the poetic license to take a story in any direction you want.”

Roth is eager to return to the studio. His last album, Shine, was given accolades both for its musicianship and its lyrical content. “Justin Roth has a gift for writing meaningful lyrics, stirring melodies, and hooks as memorable as anything you are liable to hear on a major label ‘pop’ release,” noted a writer for Taylor Guitars Magazine.

Roth says that a crucial figure in his development as a musician was John Ziegler, a program manager for Duluth’s campus radio station, KUMD. “John exposed me to a lot of music I still listen to today. He was key in my musical growth.”

As fate would have it, Roth veered away from a career in music behind the scenes, and has instead opted to be onstage. The decision has paid off for Roth and his fans, as his music continues to grow and mature. With an album on the horizon, Justin Roth is excited for what the future holds. His song, “Yesterday’s Gone” speaks his need to move forward: Yesterday’s gone and tomorrow’s too long not to seize the day.